Yu Darvish was all alone. Sitting in front of his locker in the Texas Rangers’ spring training clubhouse, the pitcher arranged his belongings hastily, kept his eyes trained on the floor, and, with his unruly bedhead and a slight frown, wafted a kind of late-teenage surliness. He wanted to flee. Nearby, a phalanx of beat reporters — some American, some Japanese — huddled together, staring at him, unsure whether to approach. Darvish, the Rangers’ biggest star, is a mercurial presence and an object of fascination. A 6-foot-5, 27-year-old Japanese ace of Iranian patrimony, he has a rock star’s extracurricular interests and a wildly entertaining game. (His eephus-like 60 mph curveball, offset by a high-90s heater, is the stuff of viral GIFs.) And his continued excellence isn’t so much a key to the Rangers’ success as a prerequisite for even discussing it. So when Darvish has some aches and pains, people around the team grow uneasy, and on that late March morning, word had leaked that all was not well. Darvish was feeling lousy, and he had asked to be scratched from his scheduled start. Yu Darvish had a stiff neck.
A stiff neck for Yu Darvish may be big news, especially during spring training, but it is not simple news to convey. Darvish isn’t shy, but he speaks very little English, and the Rangers’ training staff, coaches, players, and Dallas-area beat reporters speak even less Japanese. When your team’s star pitcher motions to his neck and seems to indicate something is wrong, you probably want to know exactly where it hurts. So when Darvish has a stiff neck, or Darvish needs to discuss pitching strategy, or Darvish wants to crack a joke, some coach or front-office staffer will invariably turn around and call out, “Kenji!” Most of the time, he’s already there.
That morning, as Darvish sat at his locker, Kenji Nimura, a diminutive 42-year-old former high school teacher, was standing a few feet away, chatting in Spanish with pitchers Alexi Ogando and Joakim Soria, their conversation punctuated by loud, excited laughter. But as the beat reporters crept closer to Darvish for an impromptu press conference, Nimura’s face dropped into a more sober cast. He walked over to the pitcher, took up his familiar position at Darvish’s side, and began fielding questions.
“What happened to your neck?” one of the reporters asked.
Darvish, who understands English much better than he speaks it, didn’t need the question to be translated. He replied curtly.
“Slept wrong,” Nimura said a second later, aping Darvish’s shrug.
“How concerned are you about this?” another reporter jumped in.
This time Nimura repeated the question in Japanese, nodded deliberately as Darvish answered in his deep baritone, then seamlessly conveyed the message in a relaxed English.
“Not at all,” Nimura said. “If I have, uh, two days or three days, it’ll be gone. So I think I’ll be able to pitch in the next outing.”
“Do you think you’re ready to go now for Opening Day? Are you pleased with where you’re at now? Will it be good enough for the regular season?” came a final volley of questions.
Darvish waved off Nimura. “Yes,” the pitcher answered. And with that, Darvish bolted out of the clubhouse.
The next day Nimura was again charged with conveying disappointment. Over the course of that morning, he was in constant motion, winding his way through the team’s facilities, speaking in three languages. Nimura sat with Ogando in manager Ron Washington’s office as the Dominican pitcher learned he was being sent to the bullpen, and then he accompanied him to a follow-up meeting with pitching coach Mike Maddux. Nimura aided another Dominican, the team’s former closer Neftali Feliz, who had to answer questions from the media about his just-announced demotion to Triple-A. Then Nimura joined Darvish in the training room to discuss the latter’s neck. By 10:30 a.m., Nimura looked drained, as if he’d been demoted and injured himself.
“You don’t want to be the person to tell them the bad news,” Nimura said later that day. “I remember in 2008, [Takashi] Saito had an elbow issue, and I had to take him to the doctor, and I was there to translate when the doctor was saying to him that it was pretty much the end of his season. You build a relationship where he becomes a friend and a brother figure, so it’s saddening. But you have to be professional about it. It’s your job to communicate. Sometimes emotions get in the way, but you have to do it.”
It’s also a job that has become crucial to running MLB franchises as the league has continued to grow more culturally and linguistically diverse. More than a quarter of the players on Opening Day rosters this year were born outside the United States (a greater portion than in the NBA, which gets far more credit for its international outlook), and the 2014 Texas Rangers are the sport’s most global team, with an Opening Day roster that featured 14 foreign-born players from eight countries. Over the past three seasons, a new crop of international stars has surged into the game’s elite, among them Cuban hitters Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Cespedes, and Darvish’s fellow Japanese pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma. These players have the kind of charisma and ability that should make them an MLB marketer’s dream — keys to the game’s continued growth. And not one of them speaks very much English.
The rise of so many non-English-speaking players has led to a growing roster of professional interpreters, none of whom can marshal quite as many resources as Nimura. A cultural chameleon who moved from Japan to the U.S. at age 11, he can translate the profane slang of former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda into the rough-hewn dialect of Nimura’s hometown of Nagoya, joke around with Latin American stars so naturally that they call him paisano, and propose fan-outreach ideas in business vernacular to the team’s front office. Nimura is also a scholar. The right question can send him into reveries about the complex relationship between cultural identity, language, and geography — a result of his own peripatetic life and education. And while hardly anyone grows up dreaming of becoming a professional baseball interpreter, Nimura, because of his biography and passions, seems uncannily suited to the job.
“I struggled breaking into American culture,” Nimura says. “Kids could be cruel and honest at the same time. You don’t speak the language, and you just get ridiculed. I remember vomiting every morning, I was so stressed out.”
Nimura and I are sitting at a picnic table near the right-field seats of the Rangers’ spring training ballpark in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Arizona. He is 5-foot-7 with a serious face that occasionally breaks into a bashful half smile. His manner is slightly harried, like an adjunct professor with a few too many students.
Nimura spent the first 11 years of his life on the outskirts of Nagoya, a port city that serves as a major hub for the Japanese auto industry, and as a kid, he was an avid baseball fan, rooting for the local Chunichi Dragons. “My childhood idol was Ken Macha,” he says. “He was a third baseman — tall, blond, American. I used to have a life-size poster of him in my room.”
Nimura’s father ran a business exporting demitasse cups to the Middle East, but the Iranian revolution of 1979 forced him to look for new markets. In 1983, the family moved to Los Angeles, and all of a sudden, Nimura was struggling through ESL classes with a melting pot of the sons and daughters of migrant laborers from the Mexican state of Michoacán, refugees from Nicaragua’s Contra War, and Persian Jews who fled the Ayatollah Khomeini.1 Nimura hated it and dreamed of moving back to Japan.
It’s typical of Nimura that nearly 30 years after taking his last ESL class, he’s able not only to recall the specific cultural backgrounds of his classmates, but the geopolitical reasons for their arrival in Los Angeles.
“My breakthrough was in my fourth year in the States,” Nimura continues. “I found out through friends that this American girl liked me. And I said, Wow, that’s amazing. I didn’t even speak English that well, but I started to go out with her, and it was a confidence booster. Everything took off from there — I became school treasurer, my baseball career took off. That was the peak of my baseball career, ninth and 10th grade.”
From there, Nimura, no longer homesick, began to culture-hop compulsively. He dated a Mexican girl and learned Spanish. (“Having relationships with girls from different ethnicities is a great motivator,” he says with a laugh.) He studied cultural anthropology at San Jose State, spent a summer crisscrossing Europe by train, signed up to study abroad in Spain, and fell in love with a striking Basque woman.
After graduating, Nimura returned to Spain to conduct research for a master’s in Hispanic civilization, writing his thesis in Spanish on the Basque people. “I got really interested in how language and a person’s identity intertwined,” he says. “It was like studying myself. There are so many Basques that don’t speak Basque, and a lot of the radicals in the Basque independence movement who do speak the Basque language are the children and grandchildren of migrants from other areas of Spain.” Nimura himself now spoke three languages fluently, but his cultural identity remained unfixed. He had once wanted to assimilate fully into U.S. culture, but he had since realized he would remain not quite of it. “I always thought speaking English would give me a free ticket to becoming American,” he says. “It didn’t.”
Nimura ended up living in Spain for three years and marrying a Madrileña. (He and the Basque woman had split.) Then there was a stint working for a porcelain dishware wholesaler on the Japanese island of Kyushu, and a return to California to join his father’s business. Bored of the work, Nimura started teaching Spanish on the side at a Santa Monica high school and a West Los Angeles community college. “I wanted to be a student for the rest of my life,” he says, “and the only way to make a career out of being a student is to become a teacher.” In 2008, shortly before his 36th birthday, he applied to a doctoral program in social linguistics at UCLA. But then he learned the Los Angeles Dodgers were seeking a Japanese interpreter for their closer, Takashi Saito. Nimura applied: “I was hired on the spot, and I never looked back. I don’t know if I got accepted to UCLA; I never opened the envelope.”
When Nimura entered the Dodgers’ clubhouse, he saw a subculture as much as a baseball team. “I thought I could write an ethnography,” he says. Dodgers players spoke English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Taiwanese, Korean, and Papiamento, a language native to the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao — and Nimura, the bicultural kid with a deep affinity for Hispanic life, found himself at home. After home games, he would go out to sushi joints and izakaya bars with Saito. “In 2007, my father and I would go right up to the bullpen at Dodger Stadium and say, ‘Ganbare Saito!’ — ‘Let’s go, Saito!’ — when he warmed up,” Nimura remembers. “A year later I was singing karaoke with him.” Soon after joining the club, Nimura started interpreting for starter Hiroki Kuroda as well, but Nimura’s role on the team was not limited to the two Japanese pitchers. He talked so much with the team’s Latin Americans that he adopted the staccato Caribbean cadence of their Spanish. (He began the job with a lispy Castilian accent.) Manny Ramirez, the eccentric Dominican American slugger who arrived in L.A. to great fanfare in August 2008, became close with Nimura, and once demanded that the interpreter add his name to a souvenir ball featuring the signatures of the team’s roster. Nimura protested that he wasn’t a player. “Sign it,” Ramirez said. “You are a part of us.”
“When you come to the clubhouse, it’s like a utopia,” Nimura says without a hint of cynicism. “You have everyone getting along with different ethnicities. You don’t see that even in L.A. or New York — there, the ethnic groups live in pockets. On the team, everyone has the same goal: You want to win. It doesn’t really matter what your background is as long as you can play. I always say that it’s kind of a metaphor. A baseball team itself is a metaphor of what people could accomplish if everyone had the same goal. I thought, If everyone could see this, I think it would be a better society.”
When Darvish arrived in the U.S. in 2012, he was young, rich, cocky, demonically talented, and, like Nimura three decades earlier, an immigrant in a strange, new country. The son of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother (his parents met in St. Petersburg, Florida), Darvish became a national hero in Japan in 2004 after pitching a no-hitter in the fervently followed springtime Koshien high school baseball tournament, and he earned a bad-boy reputation the next year when he was photographed smoking a cigarette in a pachinko gambling parlor.2 (Many Japanese players smoke, but Darvish was underage.)
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who had drafted Darvish in November 2004, banished him from spring training and sent him to their spartan minor league facility for “reeducation.”
Despite Darvish’s obvious talent, many Japanese teams eyed his arrival in the pros with skepticism. “My scouting director here didn’t think he was what our fans really would like to root for,” Bobby Valentine, then manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, told ESPN’s Jim Caple in 2008. “[The Japanese] really do like to have their star players from their community, from their prefecture, from their area in the country and, lastly, at least from the country. And sometimes when a guy isn’t of the same model as every other guy, there are some old heads in the country [thinking], ‘I don’t want that guy on our team.'”
Darvish considered himself “100 percent Japanese.” After all, he didn’t speak Farsi and had visited Iran only a few times. But born with a long, prominent nose and the name Sefat Farid Yu Darvish, there was no hiding his background. Darvish wasn’t the first mixed-race Japanese star. The home run king Sadaharu Oh had a rarely mentioned Chinese father, and the pitcher Hideki Irabu was the son of an American G.I. As long as Oh and Irabu thrived, they were fine. When Oh struggled as the Yomiuri Giants’ manager, and when Irabu had run-ins with his coaches, their heritage would get thrown back in their faces.
“With Irabu, the Japanese would say, ‘He’s half foreigner, so there’s something wrong with him,’” said Robert Whiting, a Tokyo-based American journalist who has chronicled Japanese baseball for decades. “If Darvish had had some confrontation with someone, you’d hear people say, ‘Well, after all, it must be the Iranian influence.’”
Runaway success thwarted Darvish’s potential critics and xenophobes. Over his seven seasons playing Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan’s big leagues), Darvish became the country’s best pitcher and one of its biggest and brashest celebrities. He won two Pacific League MVP awards, rattled off five consecutive seasons with sub-2.00 ERAs, fell into a tabloid romance and then marriage with Saeko, a famous starlet (they have two boys together), posed seminude for the women’s fashion magazine Anan, dated an adult-film star (after he and Saeko had split), and then departed Japan for a six-year, $56 million contract with the Rangers.
Darvish’s transition to the big leagues could very well have encountered some hiccups. Other Japanese pitchers like Irabu, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kei Igawa had arrived in the United States with great expectations and then failed, to varying extents, to live up to them. None of those players had dominated the NPB quite as spectacularly as Darvish had, but the Rangers knew they needed to carefully guide his adjustment to life in the majors.
“Yu is a very gifted and talented person, and a very demanding person to work with,” Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “We had evaluated every single previous player who had come over from a foreign country and required an interpreter to understand what type of entourage these guys had around. A lot of them had come over with an interpreter, a massage therapist, a trainer — the list could be three to four. What transpired then is a mentality where you have one player sitting outside the other 24. We wanted Darvish to be part of the fabric of the franchise, so we wanted to give him an interpreter who could deliver sometimes difficult messages but not be a buffer between him and his teammates.”
In Darvish’s first season, Joe Furukawa, a Japanese American Pacific Rim scout who had known Darvish in Japan, was called back to Texas to fill that role. But in 2013, Furukawa returned to his previous post and the team went looking for his replacement.
“I take it you didn’t want to hire some 25-year-old guy to go running around with him, right?” I ask the 44-year-old Furukawa when I meet him in Arizona.
“Oh, yeah, Jesus!” he says. “No, we wanted somebody mature, experienced, older — somebody that Yu was going to respect. Someone who was going to stay grounded. We can’t have a young, energetic, geeked-up interpreter saying, Hey, I’m Yu Darvish’s interpreter!”
Nimura, who had followed Kuroda to the Yankees in 2012, was an obvious choice. He’s the kind of clearheaded but quick-witted big-brother figure the Rangers had in mind — both trustworthy and conversant in baseball culture. In Whiting’s 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa, the definitive history of American ballplayers in Japan, an entire chapter is filled with foibles of interpreters and their athletes. One interpreter knows so little about baseball that he mistakenly believes “take a pitch” means “swing away.” Other interpreters act as spies for the team, reporting back on the late-night activities of the gaijin (foreigners). Censorship is a constant issue. “If a gaijin says something like ‘I don’t give a fuck!’ well, I say, ‘I’ll try harder,’ instead,” one interpreter tells Whiting. “It avoids trouble.”
I’d been curious about these issues of trust since arriving in Rangers camp. When I spoke to Whiting, he told me that Japanese interpreters in the big leagues “had a more straightforward arrangement” — meaning they were not expected to snoop for the brass — but that they nonetheless play a delicate and influential role in filtering what their players hear and what their players are heard saying. Nimura, as you might expect, is thoughtful about this power.
“The trust factor is very important,” he says. “There are so many bilinguals, but if you don’t get along, he’s not going to trust you. Sometimes he’s putting his health, his career in your hands. It takes years and years to build trust, but it takes one incident, one second to destroy it.”
“Do you ever wonder what would happen if you abused that trust?” I ask. “Just make something up?”
“I could change the game, right?” he replies with a grin. “Yeah, throw a slider. No, a fastball. That could happen, yeah. It was so funny, Kuroda asked me once to go to a barber with him, and he wanted me to translate how he wanted to get his hair trimmed. I was sitting there with him, thinking, I could just make his hair blond right now.”
The Rangers don’t seem overly concerned about interpreter sabotage. “I have no idea what he’s saying,” Maddux says, “but either he’s accurate or he’s one hell of a pitching coach.”
Charisma on the baseball diamond doesn’t depend on spoken language. Nimura’s friend Manny Ramirez, after all, was widely known for his personality — “Manny being Manny” — and it had little to do with cleverly constructed sentences. But language and cultural barriers are called barriers for a reason, and Japanese players who join MLB franchises often run up against them. The first Japanese player to make the leap, Masanori Murakami, landed on the San Francisco Giants’ roster almost by accident, a 19-year-old minor leaguer on loan from the Nankai Hawks3 who dominated at Class A and got called up to The Show late in the 1964 season.“The Giants players loved him,” says Robert Fitts, the author of a forthcoming biography of Murakami. “He’s a really nice, outgoing fellow. He enjoys jokes. He enjoys palling around. And he’s very intelligent.” But despite his efforts to learn English, which included carrying around a bilingual dictionary, Murakami never really picked it up and didn’t even have the services of a full-time interpreter. Life could be lonely. U.S. newspapers wrote stories mocking his language skills. Japanese newspapers printed fabricated stories about his love life. And then a contract dispute between the Giants and the Hawks cut the whole experiment short. He returned to Japan after the 1965 season, and for the next 30 years, a working agreement between the MLB and NPB commissioners essentially closed the door to America for all Japanese players.
Murakami arrived with two other young Japanese players, third baseman Tatsuhiko Tanaka and catcher Hiroshi Takahashi. Neither impressed during spring training, and both were sent to rookie ball in Twin Falls, Idaho, where they spent an interpreter-less season getting called “Joe” and “Mickey.”
In 1995, Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player since Murakami to make a big league roster, after exploiting a loophole in the NPB’s Uniform Players Contract with the aid of the Japanese American agent Don Nomura. Murakami’s ascent had been a curiosity. Nomo’s was an international sensation. He was initially denounced as a traitor in Japan, but after his dazzling early successes, Nomo was forgiven and deified. Unlike the affable Murakami, Nomo projected mystique over accessibility. “Psychologically, spiritually, he wants to be cool,” Nomo’s interpreter, Michael Okumura, told the Los Angeles Times in 1996 after the pitcher threw a no-hitter at Coors Field. “If he gets too excited and says the wrong thing, it would be all over. That’s why he’s very careful in telling people what he wants to say.”4
Not everyone accepted the wisdom of Nomo’s decision to remain an enigma. In 1997, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote: “Isn’t it time Hideo Nomo learned English? Isn’t it time he invested more of himself into a team and community that have invested so much in him?”
Nomo’s arrival inaugurated the modern era of Japanese players in the majors. Like Nomo, these imports were largely viewed by MLB fans and media through a lens of Eastern otherness. Ichiro Suzuki is the impish Zen monk, celebrated for his sly humor, often dubbed “koanlike,” examples of which were collected into David Shields’s book, Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro. Hideki Matsui, who once apologized to his teammates after breaking his wrist while trying to make a diving catch, is the egoless and dedicated Japanese worker (a caricature that is perhaps complicated by his famous collection of 55,000 adult films). After Matsui won the World Series MVP in 2009, he broke out of this stereotype, if for only a moment. Speaking with Fox’s Ken Rosenthal through his interpreter Roger Kahlon, Matsui sounded humble, warm, and dude-ish. What’s more, when Matsui was channeled through Kahlon’s laid-back voice, he sounded positively American. (“I resonated with his way of thinking,” Kahlon says.)
Matsui has embraced America. Despite having retired from baseball, he still lives in New York City. He has not, however, come close to mastering English. “Some players are very private, and if they’re very private, their opportunity to interact with others to learn the language is limited,” Kahlon said. “There’s only so much you can progress even if you take the time to learn. There’s a catch-22 of: ‘I really want to learn but I also want to keep my privacy.’”5
The exception was relief pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who spoke only limited English upon arrival in Anaheim Angels camp in 1997, but refused the services of an interpreter. He was eager to acclimate to American culture as quickly as possible. Hasegawa’s adventurous English interviews were collected into a Japanese best seller titled My Way to Study English.
Of all the Japanese players to come to the States, Darvish might be the one best suited to develop into a fully formed public personality. He arrived at age 25, younger than most of his predecessors. He’s traveled internationally since birth, a consequence of his mixed heritage and a far-flung extended family. He’s unusually direct — “He’s not going to be a beating-around-the-bush Japanese type of guy,” Furukawa says. And he’s making a serious effort to learn English. In spring training, he and Nimura met daily to review vocabulary taken from pitching strategy sessions, team meetings, and clubhouse banter.6 “He’s really curious about a lot of things,” Nimura tells me. “He wants to learn. I didn’t see that with other players I was with.”
Sample entry: “Lazy, slack off: Kenji is lazy. He is slacking off. He has to try harder.”
Yet even as Darvish improves his English, channeling his personality into a foreign tongue and sensibility remains a challenge. The pitcher was raised in Osaka, an area known as a cradle of Japanese comedy. “I grew up listening to that Osaka dialect and associating it with humor,” Nimura said. “So Yu could be speaking something serious, but to our ears it sounds so comical. But he’s also really funny.”
A couple of weeks before I arrived in Rangers camp, Darvish had caused a minor kerfuffle when he, through Nimura, was asked to comment on the Yankees’ signing of countryman Masahiro Tanaka to a seven-year, $155 million contract that dwarfed his own. “I don’t know too much about the new posting system,” Darvish said through Nimura, “but I think the Yankees gave him too much.” Tweeted out by a writer for MLB.com, the comment made Darvish look petty.
“Everyone got the joke,” Nimura tells me. “I tried to imitate his expression and everyone got it except the one who tweeted.”
As the number of non-English-speaking players has expanded, Major League Baseball has gradually elevated the status of their interpreters. George Rose, a Pacific Rim operations adviser for the Yankees, used to stand in the clubhouse tunnel between innings to translate conversations between Irabu and the Yankees’ pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre. Rose, like all interpreters, was banned from the dugout and not allowed anywhere near the field.
“There was one game where Mel went out to the mound and spoke to Hideki, and he ended up getting a double-play ball to end the inning,” Rose recalls. “Hideki came to me afterward and said, ‘What did Mel say to me when he came out? I think he was telling me to really be more accurate with my pitches.’ I went and asked Mel, and he said, ‘No, actually, I told him to stop aiming the ball and just throw it.’”
In 2009, interpreters were allowed into the dugout during games — Nimura remembers hiding from TV cameras when he would sneak onto the Dodgers bench before the rule change. Then, last year MLB granted them permission to visit the mound with pitching coaches and managers. But even with the expanded scope of his role and the perks of traveling with a major league club, Nimura’s job can be grueling and monotonous. “I’m not translating the works of Shakespeare and Cervantes — this is baseball,” Nimura tells me. “I’d kill myself if I had to just translate, so I’ve kept myself busy doing other things.”
Nimura left the Yankees after only one season for that reason. “I wanted to do some of the PR stuff, I wanted to do some of the business stuff, I wanted to use my background. The Yankees just didn’t see me in that role.” The Rangers did. Nimura has organized a visit from the Aoyama Gakuin University baseball team to Rangers camp that will take place in March 2015. He has created a website for players’ families (in English, Spanish, and Japanese) with information on navigating unfamiliar ballparks and recommendations for restaurants in every American League city. He’s writing a blog, Speaking Baseball, that explains folksy American sayings to the Rangers’ Japanese fans. (A recent entry, “Ducks on the Pond,” breaks down the meaning of the phrase in its baseball and wilderness connotations and introduces the team’s most avid hunters.)
But even the front-office work might not occupy him for much longer. Every so often, Nimura flirts with the idea of reapplying to that UCLA social linguistics program he blew off years ago. He has a family now — two young sons and a Japanese American wife — and for eight months a year he’s traveling while they’re in Los Angeles. “I don’t think I’m going to be an interpreter for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’ve already missed so many milestones. From Valentine’s Day all the way to Halloween, it’s a constant road trip for me.”
The job’s loneliness extends beyond the travel of a 162-game season. At one point during our conversations, Nimura recalls a dinner he attended a couple of years back at a midtown Manhattan yakitori restaurant with Kahlon, Rose, and Ichiro’s interpreter, Allen Turner. “We could’ve written a book, there were so many funny stories,” he says. But when I ask him to elaborate, he demurs. “I wish I could give you more juice, but I just don’t think it could be published.”
Kahlon related a similar sentiment: “There’s so much sensitivity when you work with somebody so closely. You can’t talk to anybody about the job because the privacy of that player is a priority. Probably most of the things I’m going to take to my grave.”
During my three days in Rangers camp, it was relatively easy to find any player, coach, or front-office employee that I wanted to talk to. Darvish, however, was elusive. “It’s just not a good time,” Nimura told me. When I brought up the idea of interviewing Darvish about Nimura through Nimura, the interpreter balked. That would be impossible, he said — one step too awkward, one step too meta. He recommended that I show up one morning and find a Japanese reporter named Naoko Sato with whom Darvish seemed to have a good rapport. She would translate. “Just make sure I’m not in the room,” Nimura added.
So on my final morning in camp, Sato and I entered the Rangers clubhouse and found Darvish at his locker, trying to avoid an encounter with the media. Sato and I approached, and after Darvish learned he would not have to discuss his stiff neck or his next start or whether he would still be able to pitch on Opening Day, he relaxed.
Darvish seemed amused by the interview, but his responses were banal, at least as conveyed in Sato’s English. When I asked Darvish if Nimura had hepled him adjust to American culture, the pitcher let out a throaty laugh, and as he answered the question in Japanese, he and Sato chuckled continuously. “Kenji always listen to him when he want to complain or something,” Sato said for Darvish. “So Kenji always listen to him, and that’s why he’s important.”
I could maybe, sort of get the humor. But where was rock-star Darvish? The orange-haired Iranian Japanese Mick Jagger who dated porn stars, smoked cigarettes in pachinko parlors, and had the stones to throw big league sluggers a 60 mph breaking ball?
“They say you’re really funny,” I told Darvish. “Is Kenji able to tell your jokes in English?”
“Mmmmm …” he mused, before finishing a short answer in Japanese.
“He said he’s not sure about it,” Sato said.
“When do you think you won’t need a translator any more?” I asked. “I hear you’re learning English.”
Darvish spoke about three words in Japanese before Sato burst out laughing. He continued speaking as she continued giggling.
“He says that he doesn’t want to take Kenji’s job away, so that’s why as long as he stays here, he wants to keep Kenji,” she said.
I wasn’t quite sure what had transpired. Darvish had made Sato laugh for much of the two-minute interview, but she hadn’t been able to convey his humor. Of course, she wan’t a professional interpreter — she was just doing me a favor. I wondered if someone else could bring Darvish’s words to life. I emailed the recording to a friend, an American professor of modern Japanese history who had lived in Tokyo and spoke Japanese fluently. He sent his translation back a few days later. His version was more fluid than Sato’s, but it didn’t have any more personality. He apologized for the flatness: “Part of the humor seems to be in the deadpan winking delivery.”
On May 27, Darvish awoke in his Minneapolis hotel room with a familiar feeling — he had a stiff neck. He’d come back strong after the spring training injury, but the ailment, which has dogged him for several seasons, had returned. The Rangers decided to scratch him. “There’s one thing about Yu Darvish: If he’s not 100 percent, he’ll let us know,” Ron Washington said. “Yu Darvish is just a different animal. He doesn’t want to have a reason why he didn’t do well.”
Five days later, Darvish returned to the mound in Washington, D.C. He had spent a largely sleepless night worrying that his neck pain would resurface. It did not. Darvish went eight innings, struck out 12 batters, and allowed no runs. To date, he has compiled an 8-4 record with a 2.63 ERA, fifth-best in the American League, which he was recently selected to represent in next week’s All-Star Game. For the foreseeable future, it seems that Darvish and his countryman Tanaka (who has been even better than Darvish this season) will be among the game’s elite. In Washington, a reporter asked Darvish how he had enjoyed his first visit to the city. Darvish replied that he hadn’t had much time for sightseeing but had learned that the Pentagon had “five sides.” No doubt Nimura sold the quip well enough, but it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t funnier in the Osaka dialect.
Early on in our conversations in Arizona, I asked Nimura about his theory of translation, about how he went beyond the words and reached for some deeper meaning. “You have to be at the same emotional level as he is,” Nimura replied. “You can’t get overexcited or underexcited. If he just threw a shutout and he’s thrilled, you can’t just be sitting there — ‘I’m happy.’ If he laughs, you laugh with him.”
Eric Benson (@elbenson) is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, and the Oxford American. His first piece for Grantland was a mini oral history of Alan Thicke’s sports fandom.
Illustration by Jungyeon Roh.